Ismael’s Ghosts: The Director’s Cut, is a reminder that there is a crucible of chaos behind most things we see and love.
Beware the movie about a director in crisis. Ever since Fellini’s 8 ½ (1961) the meta-film about a production halted by directorial hysterics has been an industry favorite, and for some, it’s seemingly the only way to continue their craft.
This is the case with Arnaud Desplechin’s Les fantômes d’Ismaël (Ismael’s Ghosts), which recently made its world premiere as in a new extended director’s cut at New York Film Festival. Before that, it acted as the opening film for the Cannes Film Festival, a paid position where new movies that didn’t make the cut masquerade as Official Selection. It was the first film I saw in Cannes’ Grand Lumiere Theater, shortly after my first time on a real red carpet, dressed to the nines in what little I had. I blame the largely positive reviews from that screening on the excitement of opening night; my experience, after having expectations so artificially high on pomp and circumstance, was a severe letdown.
Desplechin must have felt the same way when he found out his film hadn’t made it into competition at Cannes, because he went back to the editing booth and rearranged, ending up with a new directors cut, twenty minutes longer, that promised to hold its own in premiere at Lincoln Center, where New York Film Festival is just wrapping up its first Press and Industry week. Ismael’s Ghosts: The Director’s Cut sounds kind of like a horror film, since a lot of cheap thrillers try and sell DVD’s by advertising a new extended version showing things that “weren’t fit for the theater.” The reality is a lot more boring: a director trying to save himself by filming director who’s failing to save himself.
If you watch the trailer, the film is being sold as a rom-com about a happy couple being interrupted when the man’s long-lost wife, Marion Cotillard, pops up out of the blue to wreck their home. And that is the plot – of about ten percent of the film. Though advertising makes much of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Marion Cotillard dueling for their man, far more both characters and their passions are obscured by that man himself: Ismaël Voillard (Matheiu Amalric), a French director who is supported entirely by his vices of pills and liquor, trying desperately to pull together a film about his estranged brother’s life as a secret agent. Washed out to a point somewhere between Johnny Depp and Keith Richards, Ismaël’s love triangle is just one of his many distractions, and in the end proves to be less important than the vices, particularly in the new director’s cut. I watched the film in Cannes increasingly frustrated at how Cotillard, the supposed catalyst of Ismaël’s chaos, fades away into the film as if she had never arrived, an unintentional cameo by someone supposed to be a costar. While I was half-dreading watching the thing a second time – I figured at best I would get to see more of the wonderful Cotillard in her element, and the film would be righted as a narrative of love gone wrong. This was not the case at all, but I emerged actually grateful that I got to have a new perspective.
Ismael’s Ghosts is sold as a rom-com about a couple interrupted when the man’s long-lost wife, Marion Cotillard, pops up. And that is the plot – of about ten percent of the film.
The cut changes little of the story, it merely adds a detour of Ismael’s trip to Tel Aviv, where he gave a speech dedicated to his mentor, Henri Bloom (László Szabó) – the father of his formerly missing wife. It also shows more of his breakdown into drugs and drinking, missing film shoots passed out on the floor of his parent’s house. New footage has him waking up drunk in a park, where the star of his film appears as an apparition and they make out; he also has a new scene where he sees an apparition of himself, where he learns that he’s in hell, at which point he fires a bullet through a mirror and collapses. Much of Ismael’s Ghosts involves a waving gun, though none of it takes place in the secret agent movie Ismaël is making, which we are shown interstitially. While the story wasn’t saved in the way I was hoping, an extra twenty minutes of breakdown made it a lot easier for me to get over the love triangle and accept the conceit as merely watching a struggling swimmer drown.
An annoying thing happens when a director makes a movie about a director struggling to make a movie; you get the idea that anything you’re seeing is monumental because its process was so shambolic, strung out, and scintillating. Even if Ismael’s Ghosts is totally mediocre, it’s a success for Desplechin simply because he was able to finish what Ismaël, the version of himself that he created, couldn’t. On the brighter side, it’s a reminder that there is a crucible of chaos behind most things we see and love. Unlike most postmodern art forms, cinema is still very product-based, and we tend to view it as an array of projects that willed themselves to appear. I think it’s very fitting that Desplechin tinkered with his film after it premiered at Cannes; just like his protagonist, he is not a higher-minded creator waving a magic wand, but a flawed man trying to create the best thing he can.
Ismael’s Ghosts is a reminder that there is a crucible of chaos behind most things we see and love.
I was lucky to see this midlife crisis of a movie at both festivals, but many of my fellow critics didn’t and the reviews will likely be an appraisal of the product rather than an attempt to grasp the process behind it. And I’m all about that – it’s kind of the name of the game – but felt a little dismayed when, walking out of the theater, so few of my fellow critics seemed moved. Many left talking about the earlier screening – Sean Baker’s The Florida Project – and deservedly so. But the delight of Ismael’s Ghosts, for me, was one that I so rarely access in the movie theater: that of watching an artist make progress. One can only hope Desplechin’s process didn’t have as many guns, pills, or brooding women as Ismael’s did.
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